Category Archives: ebook

shift happened

I do my reading almost exclusively on screen. I’ve got a kindle, an ipad, an iphone, a blackberry, and a laptop, but this weekend, I did something radical and old school, I checked a big thick book out of the library and attempted to read it.
This is going to sound incredibly lazy, like someone who gets in their car to drive a few blocks rather than walk, but the physicality of the book, having to hold it open then lift and turn each page, was a lot more exhausting than I remembered. All of that holding and lifting and turning distracted me from the act of reading, took me out of the story if you will. A few pages into it I gave up, logged in to Amazon, and bought the Kindle book.
Like many people, I’ve romanticized the feeling of paper books, so I was surprised at how easily I spurned the one used to love. I’ve been watching the evolution of reading devices for the last seven years, but it was the experience I had with this library book that made me realize that the shift is no longer about to take place, it has taken place. Other readers are switching allegiance from paper to screen as quickly and irreversibly as I did. What does this mean for the publishing industry? For bookstores? For libraries? How will they reinvent themselves to attract screen-smitten readers?

the big book of TED

At TED 2008, visual cartographers David Sibbet and Kevin Richards produced over 700 spontaneous sketches of the keynote presenters’ ideas, using Autodesk visualization tools. These sketches have now been turned into The BIGVIZ, a downloadable 200-page interactive ebook.
Parts of it are rather gnomic without reference to the talks that inspired them; but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the way ideas mutate as they are filtered through different forms.

the paper e-book

Manolis Kelaidis, a designer at the Royal College of Art in London, has found a way to make printed pages digitally interactive. His “blueBook” prototype is a paper book with circuits embedded in each page and with text printed with conductive ink. When you touch a “linked” word on the page and your finger completes a circuit, sending a signal to a processor in the back cover which communicates by Bluetooth with a nearby computer, bringing up information on the screen.
(image from
I’ve heard from a number of people that Kelaidis brought down the house last week at O’Reilly’s “Tools of Change for Publishing” conference in San Jose. Andrea Laue, who blogs at jusTaText, did a nice write-up:

He asked the audience if, upon encountering an obscure reference or foreign word on the page of a book, we would appreciate the option of touching the word on the page and being taken (on our PC) to an online resource that would identify or define the unfamiliar word. Then he made it happen. Standing O.
Yes, he had a printed and bound book which communicated with his laptop. He simply touched the page, and the laptop reacted. It brought up pictures of the Mona Lisa. It translated Chinese. It played a piece of music. Kelaidis suggested that a library of such books might cross-refer, i.e. touching a section in one book might change the colors of the spines of related books on your shelves. Imagine.

So there you have it. A networked book – in print. Amazing.
It’s not surprising to hear that the O’Reilly crowd, filled with anxious publishers, was ecstatic about the blueBook. Here was tangible proof that print can be meaningfully integrated with the digital world without sacrificing its essential formal qualities: the love child of the printed book and the companion CD-ROM. And since so much of the worry in publishing is really about the crumbling of business models and only secondarily about the essential nature of books or publishing, it was no doubt reassuring to imagine something like the blueBook as the digital book of the future: a physical object that can be reliably bought and sold (and which, with all those conductors, circuits and processors involved, would be exceedingly difficult to copy).
Kelaidis’ invention definitely sounds wonderful, but is it a plausible vision of things to come? I suppose electronic paper of all kinds, pulp and polymer, will inevitably get better and cheaper over time. How transient and historically contingent is our attachment to paper? There’s a compelling argument to be made (Gary Frost makes it, and we frequently debate it around the table here) that, in spite of all the new possibilities opened up by digital technologies, the paper book is a unique ergonomic fit for the human hand and mind, and, moreover, that its “bounded” nature allows for a kind of reading that people will want to keep distinct from the more fragmentary and multi-directional forms of reading we do on computers and online. (That’s certainly my personal reading strategy these days.) Perhaps, with something like the blueBook, it would be possible to have the best of both worlds.
But what about accessibility? What about trees? By the time e-paper is a practical reality, will attachment to print have definitively ebbed? Will we be used to a greater degree of interactivity (the ability not only to link text but to copy, edit and recombine it, and to mix it directly, on the “page,” with other media) than even the blueBook can provide?
Subsequent thought:A discussion about this on an email list I subscribe to reminded me of the intellectual traps that I and many others fall into when speculating about future technologies: the horse race (which technology will win?), the either/or question. What do I really think? The future of the book is not monolithic but rather a multiplicity of things – the futures of the book – and I expect (and hope) that well-crafted hyrbrid works like Kelaidis’ will be among those futures./thought
We just found out that next week Kelaidis will be spending a full day at the Institute so we’ll be able to sift through some of these questions in person.

design proposal for ipod-based e-book reader

I got an email the other day from the fellow who made this: an interesting proposal and, incidentally, a clever use of Google SketchUp for modeling gadgets.

The central thesis is that, unlike the Sony Librie or other tablets currently available, a dual-screen reader with a dock for the iPod is the most viable design for a) popularizing the use of an ebook reader and b) streamlining the use of an ebook store.

He’s interested in getting feedback so leave your two cents.

robinson crusoe

David Rothman over at Teleread has a very thoughtful review of a multimedia project coming out of the University of North Carolina which traces the real-world aspects of the Robinson Crusoe story. Rothman asks some very interesting questions about the possible over-use of Flash and the relationship of multimedia to text. (note: he says something very complimentary about me in the piece which makes me uncomfortable recommending it, but the questions he asks are important and very much worth considering.)

on today’s publications

notbles190.jpg On November 27 the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that “newspapers may now submit a full array of online material-such as databases, interactive graphics, and streaming video-in nearly all of its journalism categories,” while the closest The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of the Year came to documenting any changes in the publishing world is one graphic memoir (Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.)
Only last year the Pulitzer Prize Board allowed for the first time some online content, but now, it will permit a broader, and much more current assortment of online elements, according to the different Pulitzer categories. The seemingly obvious restrictions are for photography, which permit still images only. They have decided to catch up with the times: “This board believes that its much fuller embrace of online journalism reflects the direction of newspapers in a rapidly changing media world,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. With its new rules for online submissions, the Pulitzer Board acknowledges that online elements such as a database, blog, interactive graphic, slide show, or video presentation count as items in the total number of elements, print or online, that can be considered worth a prize.
Even though the use of multimedia and computer technology has become ubiquitous not only in the media world but also in the performing arts, the book world seems absorbed in its own universe. The notion of “digital book” continues to mean digital copies of books and the consequent battle among those who want the lion’s share of the market (see “Yahoo Rebuffs Google on Digital Books”). And, when we talk about ebooks we mean devices for reading digital copies of books. Interestingly, most of the books published today are written, composed and set using electronic technology. So much of what we read online is full of distracting, sometimes quite interesting, advertising. On Black Friday, lots of people following the American tradition of shopping on that day did it online. It would seem that we are more than ready for real ebooks. I wonder how long it would take for one of them to hit the top lists of the year.

dotReader is out

dotReaderLogo_185px.png dotReader, “an open source, cross-platform content reader/management system with an extensible, plug-in architecture,” is available now in beta for Windows and Linux, and should be out for Mac any day now. For now, dotReader is just for reading but a content creation tool is promised for the very near future.
The reader has some nice features like shared bookmarks and annotations, a tab system for moving between multiple texts and an embedded web browser. In many ways it feels like a web browser that’s been customized for books. I can definitely see it someday becoming a fully web-based app. The recently released Firefox 2 has a bunch of new features like live bookmarks (live feed headlines in drop-down menus on your bookmarks toolbar) and a really nice embedded RSS reader. It’s a pretty good bet that online office suites, web browsers and standalone reading programs are all on the road to convergence.
Congrats to the OSoft team and to David Rothman of Teleread, who has worked with them on implementing the Open Reader standard in dotReader.

phony bookstore

Since it’s trash the ebooks week here at if:book, I thought I’d point out one more little item to round out our negative report card on the new Sony Reader. gbl.hdr.logo.jpg In a Business Week piece, amusingly titled “Gutenberg 1, Sony 0,” Stephen Wildstrom delivers another less than favorable review of Sony’s device and then really turns up the heat in his critique of their content portal, the Connect ebook store:

These deficits, however, pale compared to Sony’s Connect bookstore, which seems to be the work of someone who has never visited Sony offers 10,000 titles, but that doesn’t mean you will find what you want. For example, only four of the top 10 titles on the Oct. 1 New York Times paperback best-seller list showed up. On the other hand, many books are priced below their print equivalents–most $7.99 paperbacks go for $6.39–and can be shared among any combination of three Readers or pcs, much as Apple iTunes allows multiple devices to share songs.
The worst problem is that search, the essence of an online bookstore, is broken. An author search for Dan Brown turned up 84 books, three of them by Dan Brown, the rest by people named Dan or Brown, or sometimes neither. Putting a search term in quotes should limit the results to those where the exact phrase occurs, but at the Sony store, it produced chaos. “Dan Brown” yielded 500 titles, mostly by people named neither Dan nor Brown. And the store doesn’t provide suggestions for related titles, reviews, previews–all those little extras that make Amazon great.

Remember that you can’t search texts at all on the actual Reader, though Sony does let you search books that you’ve purchased within your personal library in the Connect Store. But it’s a simple find function, bumping you from instance to instance, with nothing even approaching the sophisticated concordances and textual statistics that Amazon offers in Search Inside. You feel the whole time that you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Such a total contraction of the possibilities of books. So little consideration of the complex ways readers interact with texts, or of the new directions that digital and networked interaction might open up.

phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy

Since the release of the Sony Reader, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between digital text and digital music, and why an ebook device is not, as much as publishers would like it to be, an iPod. This is not an argument over the complexity of literature versus the complexity of music, rather it is a question of interfaces. It seems to me that reading interfaces are much more complicated than listening ones.
sony-reader.jpg ipod.jpg The iPod is, as skeptics initially complained, little more than a hard drive with earphones. But this is precisely its genius: the simplicity of its interface, the sleekness of its form, the radical smallness of its immense storage capacity. All these allow us to spend less time sorting through our music — lugging around stacks of albums, ejecting and inserting tapes or discs — and more time listening to it.
A sequence of smooth thumb gestures leads to the desired track. Once the track has commenced, the device is tucked away into a pocket or knapsack, and the music takes over. That’s the simplicity of the iPod. Reading devices, on the other hand — whether paperback, web page or specialized ebook hardware — are felt and perceived throughout the reading experience. The text, the visual design, and the reader’s movement through them are all in constant interaction. So the device necessarily must be more complex.
In other words, a book — even a digital one — is something you have to “handle” in order to process its contents. The question Sony should be asking is what handling a book should mean in a digital, networked context? Obviously, it’s something very different than in print.
Another thing about portable music players from Walkmen to iPods is that music, in its infinite variety, can be delivered to the senses through a uniform channel: from the player, through the wire, to the ear. Again, with books it’s not so simple. Different books have different looks, and with good reason: they are visual media. This is something we tend to forget because we so strongly associate books with intangible things like stories and abstract ideas. But writing is a manipulation of visual symbols, and reading is something we do with our eyes. So well-considered visual design, of both documents and devices, is crucial — as much for electronic documents as for print ones.
Publishers want their ipod, a simple gadget locked into a content channel (like iTunes), but they’re going to have to do a lot better than the Sony Reader. To date, the web has done a much better job at fostering a wide variety of reading forms, primitive as they may still be, than any specialized ebook device or ebook format. A hard drive with ear phones may work for music, but a hard drive (and a pitifully small one at that) with an e-ink screen won’t be sufficient for books.

phony reader

sony reader in hand.jpg What to say about this thing? After multiple delays, it’s finally out, and in time for the holidays. David Rothman, as usual, has provided exhaustive and entertaining coverage over at Teleread (here, here and here), and points to noteworthy reviews elsewhere.
It’s no secret that our focus here at the Institute isn’t on the kind of ebooks that simply transfer printed texts to the screen. We’re much more interested in the new kinds of reading and writing that become possible in a digital, network environment. But even measuring Sony’s new device against its own rather pedestrian goals — replicating the print reading experience for the screen with digital enhancements — I still have to say that the Reader fails. Here are the main reasons why:
1) Replicating the print reading experience?
E-ink is definitely different than reading off of an LCD screen. The page looks much more organic and is very gentle on the eyes, though the resolution is still nowhere near that of ink on paper. Still, e-ink is undeniably an advance and it’s exciting to imagine where it might lead.
Other elements of print reading are conjured less successfully, most significantly, the book as a “random access” medium. Random access means that the reader has control over their place in the book, and over the rate and direction at which they move through it. The Sony Reader greatly diminishes this control. Though it does allow you to leave bookmarks, it’s very difficult to jump from place to place unless those places have been intentionally marked. The numbered buttons (1 through 10) directly below the screen offer offer only the crudest browsing capability, allowing you to jump 10, 20, 30 percent etc. through the text.
Another thing affecting readability is that action of flipping pages is slowed down significantly by the rearrangement of the e-ink particles, producing a brief but disorienting flash every time you change your place. Another important element of print reading is the ability to make annotations, and on the Sony Reader this is disabled entirely. In fact, there are no inputs on the device at all — no keyboard, no stylus — apart from the basic navigation buttons. So, to sum up, the Sony Reader is really only intended for straight-ahead reading. Browsing, flipping and note-taking, which, if you ask me, are pretty important parts of reading a book, are disadvantaged.
2) Digital enhancements?
Ok, so the Sony Reader doesn’t do such a great job at replicating print reading, but the benefits of having your books in digital form more than make up for that, right? Sadly, wrong. The most obvious advantage of going digital is storage capacity, the ability to store an entire library on a single device. But the Sony Reader comes with a piddling 64 megabytes of memory. 64! It seems a manufacturer would have to go out of its way these days to make a card that small. The new iPod Shuffle is barely bigger than a quarter and they start at one gigabyte. Sony says that 64 MB will store approximately 80 books, but throw a few images and audio files in there, and this will dramatically decrease.
So, storage stinks, but electronic text has other advantages. Searchability, for example. True! But the Sony Reader software doesn’t allow you to search texts (!!!). I’d guess that this is due to the afore-mentioned time lags of turning pages in e-ink, and how that would slow down browsing through search results. And again, there’s the matter of no inputs — keyboard or stylus — to enter the search queries in the first place.
Fine. Then how about internet connectivity? Sorry. There’s none. Well then what about pulling syndicated content from the web for offline reading, i.e. RSS? You can do this, but only barely. Right now on the Sony Connect store, there are feeds available from about ten popular blogs and news sources. Why so few? Well, they plan to expand that soon, but apparently there are tricky issues with reformatting the feeds for the Reader, so they’re building up this service piecemeal, without letting web publishers post their feeds directly. Last night, I attended a press event that Sony held at the W Hotel at Union Square, NYC, where I got to play around with one of the devices hooked up to the online store. I loaded a couple of news feeds onto my Reader and took a look. Pretty ghastly. Everything is dumped into one big, barely formatted file, where it’s not terribly clear where one entry ends and another begins. Unrendered characters float here and there. They’ve got a long way to go on this one.
Which leads us to the fundamental problem with the Sony Reader, or with any roughly equivalent specialized e-reading device: the system is proprietary. Read David Rothman’s post for the technical nuances of this, but the basic fact is that the Sony Reader will only allow you to read ebooks that have been formatted and DRMed specifically for the Sony Reader. To be fair, it will let you upload Microsoft Word documents and unencrypted PDFs, but for any more complex, consciously designed electronic book, you’ve got to go through Sony via the Sony Connect store. Sony not only thinks that it can get away with this lock-in strategy but that, taking its cue from the iPod/iTunes dynamo, this is precisely the formula for success. But the iPod analogy is wrong for a number of reasons, biggest among them that books and music are very different things. I’ll address this in another post shortly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ebooks are a dead end. Will it be convenient some day to be able to read print books digitally? Certainly. Will the Sony Reader find a niche? Maybe (but Sony Ericsson’s phones look far more dynamic than this feeble device). Is this the future of reading and writing? I don’t think so. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring in a much bigger and more mysterious plot that is still unfolding.
See also:
phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy
phony bookstore
an open letter to claire israel